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When it comes to assessing the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a major geopolitical divide. The United States and its close ally Britain have warned that Russian forces are assembling at the Ukrainian border, indicating that Moscow may launch a major war on European soil. Despite this danger, certain European countries closer to the action are still skeptical.
Germany has been particularly resistant to the prevailing wisdom in Washington and London. Berlin has so far ruled out the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine. The British Royal Air Force aircraft flew over German airspace, but instead took a more direct route through North Sea and Denmark.
There are many reasons for the divide, but one key difference is in views of the Russian president and his intentions, according to Liana Fix, an expert on Russia at Berlin’s Korber Foundation. She said that many Europeans believe Vladimir Putin is lying.
“In Europe, the perception was that Russia is building up the military threat to gain concessions,” Fix, currently on a sabbatical in Washington as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told me. “Whereas, the perception here seems to be that military escalation is perhaps the most probable path ahead.”
The stark difference was highlighted in remarks Friday by Germany’s navy chief, who asked a think tank panel in New Delhi if they thought Russia was interested in having a “small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil” under its control? “No, this is nonsense,” Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach said, before adding that “Putin is probably putting pressure on us because he can do it.”
Western nations should respond by giving the Russian leader the respect he craves — and deserves — the German naval leader continued. Schonbach offered his resignation Saturday after an international outcry.
Such views are not as isolated as you may think. There are many experts and officials who think that Russia doesn’t want to cause a war and that its military buildup was a tactic designed to get concessions from the West. There is some disagreement about whether Putin’s demands for an end to NATO’s eastern expansion are reasonable.
Historian and military strategist Edward Luttwak wrote on Twitter last week that Putin was “bluffing” on Ukraine as invading the country would start a war that it “cannot afford to fight.”
“To invade Europe’s largest country with less than 200,000 troops would not end the crisis victoriously for Russia,” Luttwak wrote, adding that even if no European country will send troops, “they will send weapons.”
Russia has surprised everyone and began major international aggression before under Putin — Chechnya from 1999, Georgia in 2008, Syria from 2015 and even not-so-covertly in breakaway regions of Ukraine from 2014 — and still frequently engages in lower-level international acts. A full-scale invasion insurgent of a huge country, which is bordered by the European Union and has a large hostile population — could be quite a different matter.
Russian officials have capitalized on this uncertainty, accusing the United States and its allies of “hysteria” on Monday. Last week, Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister, stated that Russia will not engage in any aggressive action. “We will not attack, raid or invade Ukraine,” he told Russian media. Several European officials also seem to doubt the U.S.-K. accounts.
Speaking after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels, the European Union’s top foreign policy official said countries need to avoid a “nervous breakdown” in their reactions to the situation. Josep Borrell stated Monday that “we know very well the extent of the threats and how we should react to them” and said, “We must not respond in an alarmist way.”
But others believe exactly the opposite: That it is the offers of diplomacy, not the threat of war, that is the bluff. Writing for the website War on the Rocks on Monday, Michael Kofman argued that Russia’s demands simply could not be met by the United States and its NATO allies.
“By publicizing its demands and refusing to unbundle them in ways that might achieve compromise, Russia has made its diplomatic effort appear more performative than genuine,” wrote Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the think tank CNA, later adding: “Perhaps Moscow is just fishing for what it can get, but the political demands do not align with the military side of the equation.”
In December, U.S. officials said they were seeing signs that Russia was preparing for a military offensive against Ukraine involving up to 175,000 troops. Since then, troops have been seen moving through neighboring Belarus, and Britain has warned of Russian plans to install a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv. At a briefing on Monday, Jen Psaki from the White House stated that while we cannot see into President Putin’s mind, “we are witnessing the preparations they’re making
Despite denying it was planning any military action, Russia has made a series of unilateral demands that would forestall Ukraine entering NATO and effectively limit NATO forces to the military bloc’s 1997 borders, before its eastern expansion. The country has drafted agreements with the United States and NATO, with deputy foreign minister Ryabkov saying Monday the demands weren’t a restaurant menu that could be chosen from.
To many, the scope of those drafts suggests a lack of seriousness.
“Few serious negotiations begin with one side drafting, let alone publishing, an entire agreement,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, recently wrote for The Post, adding that Putin appeared to not be negotiating but offering an ultimatum. “And ultimatums, as we know from history, are often pretexts for annexation or war.”
Bluffs are made to be called. This could place Putin in the unfortunate position of having lost everything and left with no money. Does Putin really want to allow this?
“By backing away from a military escalation, Putin would risk being accused of failing to secure serious concessions on Ukraine or from NATO. He would be seen as a man who talks a lot and threatens but, when faced with a tough response from the other side, eventually backs down,” British historian Timothy Ash wrote for the Atlantic Council this week.
Others agree. Fiona Hill, formerly a top Russia official for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, has said roughly the same, telling Puck News that Putin believes it can extract concessions from Biden as he cares more deeply about Ukraine than Trump. Hill stated that if we call him bluff, then he must do something because otherwise, none of his threats would be credible.
Even the top U.S. leader apparently believes the same. He will probably move in, my guess. Biden stated last week that he must do something. The problem with credibility is that it cuts both ways.
“The president of the United States is not going to be blackmailed,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif) said in an interview with CNN this weekend. “If he were to do that, every other country would start to try to blackmail the president.”
If an attack does happen, those who thought Putin was bluffing will have been shown to be wrong. Countries like Germany have always hoped for closer economic integration and a greater dialogue with Russia to ensure peace. As Fix put it: “This is a litmus test for Germany’s approach toward Russia.”